What's up this week?
Another hard hitting Menckenesque attack on the straight-jacketing comfort swizzle of Washington County soma?
Nope. This week's column is a bit more like cotton candy -- except that I did have three or four local friends sign up for Facebook in the past month and leave their privacy settings set to "please steal my personal info," so it seemed appropriate to remind new members of the virtual universe to keep an eye on their settings.
Practicing safe Facebooking
Facebook is in the news. The social networking site, begun as a way for college students to keep track of their friends, topped 150 million members in January. If Facebook were a country, it would be bigger than Russia or Japan. Today, Facebook is used by students, parents and grandparents in more than 35 different languages and from 170 countries and territories to stay in touch with family, find old friends or play Scrabble across continents – and, best of all, you don’t have to remember anyone’s e-mail address.
I opened my Facebook account two years ago when a lot of college faculty signed up. Students get a look at my favorite movies, books and the eclectic blend of music I listen to, plus getting a look at your professors online makes them seem a little less dangerously alien. It also gives students the chance to rib me about my ukulele playing.
Being online requires a bit of caution these days, but social networking sites are only hazardous if you make one of two mistakes: 1.) leave too much personal information in places where identity thieves can find it, and 2.) post something foolish where the wrong people can see it.
You can avoid both by adjusting Facebook’s privacy settings.
To help prevent “phishing,” the process of fishing out personal and sensitive information in a way that makes identify theft possible, start by removing your birthday from public visibility and restricting your personal info to family and friends. A name and date of birth is the beginning of all identity theft. Removing your birthday and restricting access to personal data takes care of number 1.
Saying something foolish in front of the wrong people is the other danger and, let’s face it, this can be hard to avoid in the real world. Fortunately, Facebook allows you restrict access and protect your privacy. Start by thinking about who you want to see your profile. If it’s for friends and family, no worries. Odds are they already know about you. But if you want a wider range of people to have access to your information (for the purposes of job hunting, networking or if, like me, your public profile is a way to humanize your otherwise frightening professional face) then you’ll have to decide who should have access to your photos and whether or not your profile is visible to search engines (either from within Facebook or from Google).
You probably won’t post embarrassing pictures of yourself but, let’s face it, your friends might. That’s part of their job but, no worries – Facebook lets you control whether or not your name gets attached to pictures of you posted by other people.
A lot of students seem to love posting pictures of themselves partying. Friends who teach high school tell me they’ve actually nabbed a number of students who put up pictures of themselves playing beer-pong. Um, note to students: remember that some pictures might not impress future employers who, these days, routinely check out Facebook or MySpace accounts to get a look at off-duty or prospective, employees.
Fortunately, the most embarrassing pictures of me probably show me playing the ukulele. Fortunately, public knowledge of ukulele addiction hasn’t hurt Warren Buffett (a well-known uke freak) plus, the odds of my working in a job that bans ukulele playing is pretty remote.
Finally, you can decide how searchable you want to be, either from inside Facebook or even via Google. Whether you want employers (or future employers) to see your Facebook page should determine whether you want to be Google-able. Again, if your profile is for your friends and family, keep it private. If, on the other hand, you have a compelling and marketable profile, by all means make your profile searchable from Google.
The easiest solution of all is to restrict everything to “friends only” and stop worrying. Access to my profile, for instance, is restricted to friends or, in some cases, to the UW Colleges Network.
Parents worried about what their kids are doing online whether in Facebook or MySpace – and who want to drive their kids crazy – should sign up for an account themselves. That’s the best way to see what the fuss is about and how easy it is to protect themselves, and their kids, from the possible dangers of life online.